Gaming on the Spectrum: Autism and Xbox Live

Curator's Note

 In January, a local news story about an eleven-year-old autistic boy's punishment on the Xbox Live gaming service caused an internet uproar. The initial story claimed that Microsoft had victimized Julias, for whom games were an important emotional and social outlet, by stripping him of his achievements and permanently branding him a Cheater. However, it is worth considering what role “autism” plays here.

On a basic level, it is what made this story newsworthy, bringing an emotional gravity to an otherwise common occurrence. This led to it being picked up by numerous gaming websites, garnering massive page views and heated discussion threads. Is this then a concerning case of sensationalistic exploitation or an indication that readers genuinely connected with the story's human element?

Regardless of intent, it prompted a discussion of emerging challenges people on the autism spectrum face in today's digital world. While offering an accessible zone of entertainment and social engagement, it also obscures the distinctions between acceptable and inappropriate online actions. Is it the responsibility of parents, governments, or corporations like Microsoft to monitor these online environments? What are appropriate enforcement responses, especially for offenses committed by children? And whose job is it to educate young gamers (especially those needing additional attention) on how these worlds function?

Much of this ends up falling to already overtaxed parents and caregivers, despite often being less comfortable with technology than their children. In the case of Julias, within days it was revealed that he had actually broken Xbox Live rules and that his mother knew. This led to harsh criticisms from commenters about her parenting ability and whether she was using her son's autism to gain sympathy. While valid concerns, she herself appears confused about what is acceptable on Xbox Live, raising broader questions about parental media literacy.

Above all else, this story and the commentary surrounding it emphasize the serious need for this month's focus on Autism Awareness. Only gaming blog Kotaku provided even a brief definition of autism, with most outlets giving no explanation despite clear need. For example, the very first comment to Seattle Weekly's coverage is the simple question “Is autism a mental illness?” which received sixteen inconsistent replies defending both “yes” and “NO.” While lacking clear information about autism, even a contentious story like this plays a role in initiating the valuable discussions that will eventually lead to broader awareness.


Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Steven!

I wonder if Julian was allowed to listen to the live chat while playing? I recently had the opportunity to hear Dr. Lisa Nakamura speak about Xbox Live and how people conduct themselves in that online space. I was shocked to learn about the racist, homophobic, hate-filled speech that is sometimes (often? frequently?) present during team game play.

Hearing Dr. Nakamura's talk, then thinking about Julian's story, made me question whether the Xbox Live environment is an appropriate social outlet for a child with Autism. Children with Autism often have difficulty with learning "correct" social behaviors and then matching correct behaviors to specific environments. This is probably a contributing factor to Julian's lack of friends, which his mother repeatedly mentions.

A child "on the spectrum" might have difficulty understanding that it's acceptable to talk one way during game play, but not acceptable to talk the same way on the playground or in school. (Whether the trash-talk is acceptable or not is a whole separate issue which I will leave to people like Dr. Nakamura.)

Overall, this story makes me feel very sad that this is (as the mother states) Julian's "only social outlet." I don't wish to harshly judge the mother in this story; however, there must surely be other, more constructive opportunities for Julian to have social interaction that don't expose him to unmediated racist, homophobic speech.

Nedda, you've hit on one of the major downsides of online gaming. Xbox Live in particular has a bad reputation for unpleasant and offensive speech, especially in certain games. To be fair, Microsoft does have a comprehensive system of parental controls available that lets parents shut off voice/text chat completely or restrict it to only "friends." This, however, assumes parents know these controls exist, understand what they do, set them up correctly, and then monitor their child's play to make sure their "friends" aren't using this type of speech themselves. Moreover, restricting communication in this way eliminates the possibility for positive social experiences with other gamers behaving perfectly maturely. For many parents though, that may just be an unfortunately necessary side effect.

You're also right that online gaming offer new difficulties in matching social behaviors to environments because they obscure the composition of the people in them. In physical environments, children have immediate access to information about who they are interacting with and can determine the appropriate behavior in that situation. Both examples, playground and school, are also populated by children of approximately the same age, offering models for commonly acceptable behavior.

In online games, however, there is very little immediately accessible information about other players, meaning it is more difficult to assess what is appropriate. One possibility is to follow the lead of other players, which for the situations described here is a potentially dangerous option. Regardless of what is being said, it is also an issue that the average age of a person playing games is now above thirty years old. This is not a problem in itself, but suddenly children are socially interacting with people twenty years older than themselves and may not even realize.

Now that I've brought up the horrors of online gaming, I will say this is not the case across the board (though anecdotally it is worst in some of the games Julias is shown playing). Nintendo is extremely protective of its online environments, Playstation Network has more of a reputation for people not talking at all, and PC games vary greatly. This type of behavior is also most prevalent in "Mature" rated games that are not intended for children. And when players do communicate positively within a game, it has the potential for cooperation and teamwork that hold great value.

Thanks for kicking off the week, Steven! I was particularly interested in the ways in which this news story seems to construct Xbox Live as a civil right. Julias's mother attempts to suggest that the folks at XBox Live were taking away something fundamental from Julias - that is, his right to communicate and connect with others. I'm wondering, given Nedda's comment especially, how the construction of XBox as a right might contribute to our cultural understanding of gaming.

I also think you're right to raise the importance of autism awareness, though for me, the Seattle Weekly question raises a different issue; namely, the construction of knowledge in an uncertain world. Arguably, the disparate responses to the "mental illness" question don't reveal a widespread lack of awareness about autism, but rather, they point to a general confusion around it. And rightly so, for autism constitutes a range of behaviors and experiences, and to be "on the spectrum" means a number of things to different individuals. In the face of the vast array of uncertainty surrounding autism, what does it really mean to "raise awareness" about it?

Emily, you're right in noting that Julias's mother positions her sons access to Xbox Live as a sort of civil right, which brings up all kinds of questions about what roles these types of services play today. Legally, it is in no way a "right," but a for-pay service with a monthly fee and lengthy terms of use. However, the space itself is used for a wide variety of things, including social interactions, entertainment, play, and competition. Microsoft's responses to Julias's situation seem to indicate that they are most concerned with Xbox Live as a competitive space, protecting its "integrity" and keeping the playing field "fair." This seems at odds with Julias's focus on the service as a social outlet and, for children in general, as a valuable virtual playground. While in the physical world, the rules enforced on a playground are much different than those enforced in, say, a sports competition, on Xbox Live all actions are treated the same.


As to your second point, I completely agree that the disparate and variable nature of the autism spectrum makes it especially difficult to understand and certainly brings a measure of confusion. For me though, the Seattle Weekly comments, and most of the other comments to the news stories surrounding this incident (as well as the stories themselves), do not even give any indication of knowing that the spectrum exists. Some commenters describe the specific characteristics of a loved one, but the wide variations of the autism spectrum does not appear to me to be a main part of the discussion. Is it then "raising awareness" for a news story to just mention autism without explaining what it is or that it is part of a spectrum? To a certain degree, I would say "yes" in that it at least brings the subject to a potentially uniformed audience and helps initiate discussions, but eventually we need to move beyond this. How to do this, however, is still up for discussion.

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